The Transsiberian Railway – Part XIII: Missing Train & The Magic of Vodka

Alright. So we’ve met the sausage smugglers. Last we left off, a mysterious Sack Lady had entered our room, sat herself on Sal’s bunk, and proceeded to pull a whole lot of sausages out of her handbag. After imposing one on each of our compartment companions, and another on a friend of hers from down the hall, there was a nodding of heads and she disappeared.

We haven’t seen her since. But there are now sausages hidden in every nook and cranny of our room. There are two under the bed I’m sitting on. It smells like meat.

So here we are, smothered in sausages and socks and a few Mongolians for good measure. We’re rushing due North, through desert and sand dune, toward the bitter cold of eastern Siberia. And I don’t know if you know much about anything; I sure don’t. However. I do know this: Vodka does wonderful things. Let me explain.

The train comes to a halt. It’s light out. Don’t ask me what time it is, because I have no idea. Don’t ask me what day it is, because I don’t know that either. But the sun is in the middle of the sky, so I assume it’s not night time. We hop off the train.
enroute to irkutsk-3.jpgFirst step on Russian soil.

We have decided that if we are going to survive the rest of our journey to Siberia with Bossy Eyes and Bag Man, we’re going to need some help. We wander around the train station, but there’s nothing that will help our situation. So we gander a little further, through a building and past the fence surrounding the station. I can’t be certain but I’m pretty sure we’re the only people who left the area. We’re on a mission. Leaving the train behind us, we continue to walk far away from the train station. We wander through a market where Russian women draped in furs and woolen sweaters operate kiosks that sell everything under the sun.
enroute to irkutsk-5.jpg

Everything but food and drink. We keep wandering. We wander across frozen dirt roads and through barren trees that sprout sporadically between homes stapled together with rusted nails. And a couple random street cows of course.

IMG_3216

There are no supermarkets or anything that remotely resembles a place where people might buy stuff. But when we come across an undefined sign bolted to the roof of a building, we stop, curious. Not even a minute later and we spot a mother and a couple kids walk out of it, paper bags in hand. We decide to venture in. Great success! Through the boarded up windows and half-broken wooden door, we’ve found a gold mine. Russian candies, canned milk, sausages (more sausages!) and a whole shelf of vodka. By this point we’ve spent some time in Mongolia, and are now pretty comfortable reading Cyrillic. We order us some vodka. We speak in our best Russian accents.

Капля водка, пожалуйста!”

[sounds like: Kap-lya vod-ka, pa-shja-lusta!, and it means Kaplya (the brand name) Vodka, please!], and we gesture to a fine-looking bottle on the shelf.

The woman nods. She understands! This is unbelievable. (*sidenote: Russian vodka is delicious. And very affordable too. This entire bottle cost us $8.)

Orange juice too, спасиба! (spa-ssi-ba)!–(it means thank you!)

(The fact that we wound up with Nectarine juice instead is besides the point.)

We make our way back to the train station, paper bag in hand.enroute to irkutsk-4.jpg

And our train is nowhere to be seen.

NOWHERE TO BE SEEN.

Are you hearing what I’m saying? Our train is gone. Along with all our stuff.

At least we have our paper bag? And a “borrowed” teacup from the train. Sal has his Grouse Mountain coffee mug. Because why wouldn’t he?

We find a bench by the tracks, sit in the sun, and pour cocktails. We’ve got nowhere to go. We’ve got no stuff. We’ve got no passports. We’ve only got hope that our train will come back.

So we sit. And we wait. And before long, our train comes back. Only it’s not a train anymore. It’s one single solitary carriage. Our room is there; we can see it through the slanted light shining into the window. Relief.

Until this… Madness happens.

I’m telling you. Russia really knows how to make things complicated.

Do you know that we spent 14 hours here? FOURTEEN HOURS. During which time our carriage was moved, removed, replaced and moved again at least fourteen times.

From 5 in the morning until 7 in the evening.

I’ll say it again.

Russia really knows how to make things complicated.

By the time we were finally allowed back on the train, we’d become very – how shall I say it – friendly. And when we got back to our sausage and sock filled cabin, we weren’t about to be stingy on the vodka. Friend or foe, we were feeling generous. And as anyone who has spent time on a train in Russia knows, nobody says no to vodka.

And now I can say it with absolute certainty: nothing solves problems, or makes strangers into friends, better than Russian vodka on a train to Siberia.

It wasn’t long before we were talking (read: playing charades) and laughing with our crazy Mongolian smuggler friends.

Who turned out to be a lot of fun, actually. One of them even gave me a pen, which I still have.

We’re back on the train but we’re not moving. We’ve got to pass Russian customs still. They’ve had our passports since this morning, but they’ve yet to grant us access.

Before doing so, they’re going to make sure we’re not doing anything illegal.

And vodka aside, I’m a little concerned. Someone may have stuffed an illegal sausage into my backpack.

It began when a tall, strong-jawed Russian man, clad in camo-gear, white stubble, and an impressively high fur hat entered our cabin. I swear I could hear Bossy Eyes and Bag Man’s jaws clench. I was afraid for them. What happens if they get busted? Saying no words, Crazy Camo Russian Patrol gestures for us all to stand up. He proceeds to tear apart every single bag in our compartment. He even lifts the ceiling panel, and uses his flashlight to look around. Satisfied that there’s nothing illegal going on (is he blind? Who brings that many socks? Forget that – who OWNS that many socks? And doesn’t it smell suspiciously like sausages in here?), he leaves our cabin with a grunt and a nod.

The train starts to move.

At the second stop (I still don’t know where we are, exactly), a woman police officer in an equally high fur hat boards the train. She’s leading a dog with red-fur on a leash, and guides him to sniff our bags, the corners of the room, and under the sleeping mats on the two lower bunks. I’m pretty certain all the dog wanted was sausage – can you blame him? ^.~

She leaves. There’s an audible sigh of relief from our cabin mates. Someone zips up a bag.

With a groan and a lurch, the train starts moving again.

And with a smile and a giggle, Sack Lady returns. Remember her? She has reappeared – 14 hours later – only moments after we fully completed the Mongolian-Russian border crossing.

Everyone, find your sausage! Sack Lady has come to collect.

Bossy Eyes retrieves one from her suitcase, and pulls another out of the hanging netting beside her bed. Bag Man removes one from under the seat, and pulls another from the pocket of a hoodie lying next to him. As the sausages were returned, laughter ensued as they caught us watching. And, in a transaction I hadn’t originally witnessed, Bag Man removes the sweater he’s wearing, pulls another identical one from within his bag, and hands both to Sack Lady. She nods, smiles, and disappears.

What the blazes just happened? Are we smuggling sausage, or socks? Or sweaters?

Sal asks them what’s going on.

“Business!” they reply, followed by eruptive laughter. “No problem!” they exclaim. (I’m pretty sure these are the only words they know in the English language.)

We sit back, relax, and share more vodka with our new friends… who you can get a quick glimpse of in this clip:

We’re somewhere between the Mongolian border town and Ulan-Ude. There is a fat Mongolian man wearing funny pants in our cabin. It smells like burning coal and sausages. I haven’t showered in three days.

And that is all I know about that.